Minnesota 2020 Journal: School Borrows Pizza Shop Marketing
What’s the proper role of a door-hanger in a school’s student enrollment strategy? Or, more to the point, are the terms “K12 education” and “market share” compatible, antithetical or somewhere in between?
Minnesota Virtual High School (MVHS) is just that, a virtual high school. It’s an on-line school for sixth through twelfth grade students and one of several such on-line K-12 schools in Minnesota. MVHS is part of a handful of schools clustered under Minnesota Transitions Schools, a Minneapolis-based charter school.
I’m not bothered by the idea of on-line schooling, a small component of our state’s broad school choice policy. Only a tiny slice of Minnesota students possess the drive and self-discipline to work on-line, individually without the classroom’s face-to-face teacher-student instructive relationship. Virtual learning expands rather than replaces tradition schooling. I'm less crazy about door-hangers.
Earlier this week, a friend handed me a Minnesota Virtual High School door-hanger advertising flyer, deposited on her duplex’s front door. The flyer invited students and families to consider on-line learning as a high school alternative. The first thing that struck me was the incongruity of a virtual school’s print advertising that didn’t include a URL, its internet web address. That’s a little like getting a coupon from a pizza joint without including the street location yet requiring that the coupon be presented in person.
My friend lives several blocks from Saint Paul’s Central High School. While there’s nothing inappropriate about communicating school choice options to Saint Paul families, the effort reminds me of a Navy recruiter standing outside of an Army post. It’s the right idea just not necessarily the most receptive audience. But, Minnesota Virtual High School isn’t looking for every Central student; instead, it's sifting for just a few, trying to find the right matches.
In the direct marketing world, door hangers are a high volume, low cost, low yield advertising vehicle. They’re as likely to be discarded as they are to reach a customer’s eyes. The door hanger is for the business that doesn’t want to spring the extra fifteen cents per unit for direct mail which has the advantage of postal delivery, security and the seven seconds that it takes the consumer to glance at one side and then the other before dropping it into the garbage.
The flyer stresses individual attention, schedule flexibility, teacher access and institutional authenticity. It’s aimed at parents, not at students, because parents are the principal decision makers. Broadly, the message is “consider us.”
After a Google search led me to MVHS’ website, I encountered a more measured communications strategy. Virtual learning, the site notes, requires a particular type of student, one that is self-motivated and disciplined. I’m not certain that a door-hanger flyer is the best strategy for reaching this student. At best, its using a bug bomb to swat a single mosquito. You might kill the mosquito but you’ll definitely annoy everyone in the area.
Traditionally, schooling is geographic, operating within district and school attendance area lines. As population mobility increased, attending an unassigned school became possible. Increasingly in the growing school choice environment, schools sell themselves to families. This is still unfamiliar turf to most educators. In fact, most educators are, by nature, hesitant to market schools in the same way that Coke sells soft drinks, recognizing the vast difference separating fizzy sugar water and learning as products.
A stable of for-profit businesses buttress public education. MVHS contracts with Advanced Academics. We may be tempted to turn our noses up at a company selling the curriculum and software to MVHS but traditional schools are clients as well. It’s a matter of degree, oversight, engagement and purpose.
Every school seeks an economy of scale. That’s the organizational sweet-spot that balances learning and resources. Charter schools, including virtual schools, seek an optimal enrollment. I don’t know what MVHS’ enrollment targets might be but they have them. To some degree, the language of business rather than education is used to express that number. By using door-hangers, MVHS is advertising itself, hoping to increase market share at the expense of traditional schools. I’m not saying that it’s completely right or completely wrong. Schooling reality falls somewhere in the middle.
I do know that school choice requires a higher price tag than strictly-enforced attendance geography. Investing in school choice expands opportunity. Opportunity creates community growth, stability and prosperity. We’re better off when we invest in people because capable, educated people move Minnesota forward. I’m just not certain that door-hangers are the best means to the end. Excellent schooling can’t be achieved on the cheap.